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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

November 26, 2018

Omaha World Herald. November 23, 2018

ACT scores can provide guidance to Nebraska school leaders and staff

Nebraska has made changes that give a better understanding of how the state’s students are doing on the ACT exam. The approach helps educators and state leaders see how far Nebraska must go to improve.

The average composite score for Nebraska’s 2018 graduating class was 20.1. That placed Nebraska fifth among the 17 states that test all public high school juniors for the ACT. Nebraska adopted that testing approach only recently, so this was the first statewide score that allowed such an apples-to-apples comparison with other states.

The top five states were bunched together rather tightly in their scores: Wisconsin at No. 1, a score of 20.5; Utah, 20.4; Ohio, 20.3; Kentucky, 20.2. The top score possible on the ACT is 36. In previous years, about four out of five Nebraska public high school juniors took the test. Nebraska’s most recent score under that previous system was 21.4.

The ACT exam measures knowledge of English, math, reading and science. In the tested subject areas, Nebraska ranked fourth in college readiness in English, math and science, but eighth in reading.

Statewide, about half the graduating class scored below the admissions target (a minimum score of 20) for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Nebraska at Omaha, The World-Herald’s Joe Dejka reported. Fewer than a quarter of graduates met all four college readiness benchmarks — targets that predict success in first-year college courses. Fifty-six percent of graduates were prepared for success in English, 35 percent in math and 40 percent in reading.

Nebraska’s ACT scores showed a tendency to be higher in districts with a lower poverty rate. Still, Dejka found, Kentucky had a higher average ACT score than Nebraska even though public schools in Kentucky have a higher overall poverty rate.

The skill requirements for the modern workplace are high, and schools have a major challenge in preparing students. Educators’ careful study of Nebraska’s ACT scores can help districts and the State Board of Education make the needed adjustments.

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Lincoln Journal Star. November 20, 2018

Enhancing transparency required for polictical ads

The organization behind a late wave of advertisements that painted Medicaid expansion as dangerous for Nebraska’s finances didn’t have to disclose its donors before the election under state law.

However, an attorney representing Alliance for Taxpayers claims that the group doesn’t have to provide any information to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission because it didn’t explicitly lobby for or against the ballot initiative.

Whether it designated support or opposition to the ballot item is immaterial; it sought to influence voters’ actions. Therefore, the Journal Star editorial board believes the same standard should apply to this and any other entity that spends more than $5,000 on election matters, regardless of the candidate or initiative in question.

This situation serves a secondary purpose as well. It highlights the need for stronger laws to guarantee transparency and increased accountability regarding election spending in Nebraska.

Perhaps the state is dealing with a new wrinkle here, as the expenditures targeted a ballot initiative rather than an individual candidate. Still, the ability to skirt disclosure before the election - used by Alliance for Taxpayers and other groups over the years - merely by waiting until October to hit the ground running showcases how much ground Nebraska needs to cover on this topic.

The phrase “dark money” can be overused when it comes to criticizing ad buys surrounding elections. But this provides a clear-cut example.

Unlike any other advertisement to which Nebraska voters were exposed before this month’s general election, those paid for by Alliance for Taxpayers lack any information on how much was spent or how they were funded - nearly two weeks after the statutory deadline.

The Accountability and Disclosure Commission, which will investigate this case, isn’t entirely powerless. The tools at its disposal include the ability to issue subpoenas, hold evidentiary hearings and levy civil penalties of less than $2,000 for each offense.

By the time that process reaches its conclusion, though, the memory of specific political ads has long faded. The impact of those ads, however, could very well endure if they affect the outcome of an election.

Accordingly, come January, the Nebraska Legislature and governor must remove the inadequacies that allowed this impasse with Alliance for Taxpayers to occur.

To start, lawmakers must fix the calendar that allows expenditures in the final month of the campaign to go unreported until after Election Day. And while statewide ballot initiatives of this nature aren’t overly common, they must be explicitly included in the language that governs what election expenditures must be reported.

Nebraskans deserve to know who’s seeking to influence their elections. More stringent disclosure laws would serve as an important step to that end.

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The Grand Island Independent. November 20, 2018

Ferguson brought a calming, steady voice to City Hall

“A calming voice of wisdom for the council” is how Grand Island’s Mayor-elect Roger Steele described City Administrator Marlan Ferguson in a Grand Island Independent article in August.

And that is a fitting description for a leader who restored calm and brought wisdom and a steady hand to City Hall.

Ferguson, who has served two terms as Grand Island’s city administrator, announced this month that he is retiring at the end of the year so Steele can start his term as mayor fresh, with a new administrator.

Grand Island residents and officials owe Ferguson, who will turn 67 in December, a huge debt of gratitude as he heads into retirement.

When Mayor Jeremy Jensen took office in 2015 and brought Ferguson in as city administrator, Grand Island city government was coming out of a tumultuous period.

However, Ferguson and Jensen quickly restored calm to City Hall. A lot of the drama that had dominated city government for the previous four years dissipated.

Ferguson was just the person Grand Island needed as city administrator, both in Jensen’s term and also back from 1999 to 2003 when he served in the same position under Mayor Ken Gnadt.

Ferguson is a modest individual, who does his job without a lot of acclaim. Ferguson was always happy to be in the background.

All of that was a good example of how to get things done. He never cared who got the credit; he just wanted to get things done.

And he did it all without shouting and bringing attention to himself.

That is how a city administrator should operate. The mayor and City Council should discuss and decide on policies. The city administrator makes recommendations, but then follows the direction of the elected officials.

Ferguson did that extremely well, giving the council guidance but not wielding a heavy hand.

The city administrator’s contract is tied to the four-year mayoral term. While many would have liked Ferguson to stay on, if he was thinking of retirement, it was wise for him to decide to leave at the end of the year so Steele can start with his own city administrator.

Ferguson also has offered to help in any way he can during the transition.

After serving as city administrator under Gnadt, he worked as executive director of the Grand Island Area Economic Development Corp. for 10 years and then became the city administrator of Aurora for two years before being recruited back to Grand Island by Jensen.

Before coming to Grand Island, Ferguson had worked as the city administrator in Sidney.

Ferguson will be deeply missed at City Hall, but he has more than earned a peaceful retirement. The character and example he showed as city administrator will leave a lasting legacy of how the job ought to be done.

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North Platte Telegraph. November 25, 2018

Time to give up the albatross of Iron Eagle.

Other communities have public golf courses or riverfront green spaces. But North Platte’s combination of those two ideas — Iron Eagle Golf Course — has torn us apart for 30 years.

It’s become such an obstacle, it seems, that we can’t agree on getting visitors to help us fix our streets and parks through a legally dedicated half-cent sales-tax increase.

Some have said since Nov. 6 that a lack of trust in city government caused the proposal’s 2-to-1 rejection. Whatever reasons individuals may have had, one factor keeps coming up: Iron Eagle.

We intend no disrespect to the hard work and dedication of the golf course’s staffers, the generosity of the Glenn Chase family — whose land donation made Iron Eagle possible — or the course’s loyal patrons.

But it’s no secret that Iron Eagle has been star-crossed from the start.

As golf grew in popularity in the late 1980s, some residents wanted the city to buy the nine-hole Willow Greens Golf Course (now Indian Meadows) and build nine more holes across South Buffalo Bill Avenue on the city-owned South Park site.

About the same time, the late John Newburn left the city a sizable bequest for parks and recreation purposes. Some who wanted to buy and expand Willow Greens wanted to spend most or all of the bequest on it.

Instead, North Platte voters in 1990 were asked two questions: Should the city establish a public course and negotiate to buy Willow Greens? And should the city be able to spend the Newburn Fund’s principal without voter approval?

Voters said “no” to both. Thus the city can spend only interest income from the Newburn Fund. That can be used for occasional park upgrades, city officials say, but not repairs and maintenance.

When the Chase family offered its riverfront land, voters agreed in 1992 to let the city build an 18-hole course there. But a pre-election City Council resolution endorsed building a course “only if that can be accomplished entirely with anticipated course revenues and not with use of tax dollars.”

It hasn’t worked out that way. That’s painfully obvious from a quarter-century’s worth of Iron Eagle losses compiled and publicized in September by a group of local residents.

One need not detail those numbers here or recount the competition from nearby public courses. We all know the inescapable reason Iron Eagle has foundered: the South Platte River.

When the course opened in 1994, the river had behaved for half a century. But the South Platte was notorious for periodic, disastrous floods before World War II.

Just a year after Iron Eagle’s opening, flooding washed out parts of the course. Ever since, the river has repeatedly neared or exceeded its 12-foot flood stage at Iron Eagle, most notably in 2013 and 2015.

The city has repeatedly had to pour money into rebuilding holes. But the river will flood again, someday. And so will Iron Eagle.

The Chase family donated its land on condition that it become a golf course. That, and Iron Eagle’s flooding history, are reasons the city might not be able to sell it.

But one need look only to the Omaha-Council Bluffs downtown riverfront to see how the site might remain a useful but cheaper asset.

The Missouri River floods of 2011 inundated the green spaces Omaha and Council Bluffs had developed. But both cities opted for park features that could be restored relatively easily.

So, instead of Iron Eagle Golf Course, think Iron Eagle Park. Picnic tables and benches can be picked up when floods threaten. Hiking-biking trails could avoid low areas but are in any case cheaper to repair than multiple golf holes. Grasses can be reseeded.

Despite the city’s publicized laundry list of street, parks and recreation repairs, some foes of the defeated half-cent sales tax increase may have reasoned the city could instead divert proceeds to Iron Eagle and, as it were, keep throwing good money after bad.

That laundry list isn’t going away. It still makes sense to minimize our property tax burdens in fixing them by calling on visitors to help.

But whether or not municipal golf was a good idea in the late 1980s, its location along a flood-prone river surely has been proved ill-advised in the late 2010s.

The incoming City Council should divest itself of Iron Eagle, or work toward a lower-

maintenance use of the site, to remove municipal golf as a reason — or excuse — for blocking community progress.

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